William the Aethling Died in a Drunken Accident
William the Aethling (1103 – 1120) was the heir and only legitimate son of king Henry I of England. He was also the Duke of Normandy in his own right, after his father fought successful battles in France to compel the Norman barons to recognize William as their Duke. From an early age, William was spoiled rotten, and according to a contemporary chronicler, he was pampered so much that it was clear he was “destined to be food for the fire“. That indulgence would have fatal consequences, when the young prince got himself killed in a silly accident that wrecked his father’s plans and plunged England into chaos.
In November of 1120, after a diplomatic visit to France, a fleet was assembled to transport king Henry and his court across the English Channel back to England. The 17 year old prince William made plans to cross in a vessel known as the White Ship, the English navy’s pride and fastest ship. William and his companions turned the affair into a wild party, and delayed the crossing while they got rip roaring drunk on shore with the ship’s crew. Then, in a state of high intoxication, the prince and his entourage, numbering about 300 people, boarded the White Ship to make a nighttime crossing.
By then, king Henry had already sailed hours earlier. The drunk prince and his friends challenged the ship’s captain and crew to make a race of it and catch and bypass the king’s ship before it reached England. Captain and crew were confident of the White Ship’s speed, and so accepted. Furiously rowing, fueled by copious amounts of wine while being cheered and urged by the drunk prince and his friends, the equally drunk crew set a good pace. However, in their inebriated state, the crew failed to keep a good lookout, and mistakenly rowed into a hazardous stretch, where they struck a partially submerged rock. The White Ship was holed and quickly sank, and hundreds drowned, including the prince.
William was his royal father’s only legitimate male issue, and his early death led to a succession crisis. King Henry failed to sire another son, and so sought to designate his daughter, Matilda, as heir. His barons reluctantly agreed, but after Henry’s death in 1135, most barons backed his nephew, Stephen of Blois, when he claimed and seized the crown as the eldest male royal relative.
Stephen’s claim was challenged by Matilda, and the two plunged England into nearly two decades of civil war and chaos that came to be known as The Anarchy. It only ended after king Stephen agreed to designate Matilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet, as his heir. The latter ascended the throne as Henry II, following Stephen’s death in 1153, and founded the Plantagenet Dynasty which ruled England for centuries.